Writing First Drafts

This is page two of a guide to Writing Well. Start at page one.

Writing your first draft

Many people find that writing a first draft requires much more discipline than rewriting a first draft. It's hard to sit yourself down, think through half-formed ideas from scratch, and not get distracted by more fun things.

That's why I recommend writing a terrible first draft as quickly as you can. Your goal is to speedrun—to blast through the laziness and the blockers to get garbage onto paper. This shortcuts you directly to the rewriting phase, which most people find much less painful.

It's strange how well this works.

This is why, in my bad first draft, I use placeholders any time I'm stuck: when an idea requires more thought than I want to put in, I just write <to fill out> and move on. My goal is to generate and connect ideas. Not to explain everything, and certainly not to say things well. Save that for future drafts.

To repeat, my first draft is just for generating and connecting ideas.

When writing, consider listening to atmospheric music. It can help reduce your susceptibility to distraction: a steady beat without vocals helps put you in a trance. Here's my Spotify playlist.
When you write a first draft, you write it for yourself. When you rewrite it, you write it for everyone else.
—Stephen King

The first draft process

Here’s the process you'll explore:

  1. Choose an objective for your post.
  2. Identify the ideas needed to accomplish your objective.
  3. Write a messy braindump for each point. Lean into your curiosity.
If you don't have a hard time getting your ideas onto paper, skip this page and continue to the next: Rewriting.

1. Start with your objective

Choose an objective that focuses your thinking and makes your goal clear.

Here again are the objectives from the previous page:

  1. Open people’s eyes by proving the status quo wrong. Example.
  2. Share a solution to a tough problem. Example.
  3. Distill an overwhelming topic into something approachable. Example.
  4. Tell a suspenseful and emotional story that imparts a lesson. Example.
  5. Articulate something everyone’s thinking about but no one is saying. Cut through the noise.
  6. Identify key trends on a topic. Then use them to predict the future.
  7. Contribute original insights to a field through your research and experimentation.

An objective reveals what your article must accomplish to be successful. You then use your intro—from the last page—to fish for the ideas that are most interesting to explore. Your objective and your hooks help you generate ideas for your outline.

Two types of ideas comprise your outline. Writing your first draft is the art of generating both of them:

Supporting points set the stage for your argument. Resulting points explore what happens when your argument is true. Meaning, you convince readers then you open their eyes.

2. Outline your ideas

Supporting points typically come first and resulting points typically come last. But, there is no correct outline. Hundreds of paths lead to your objective.

Here’s an example outline for the objective of Challenging the status quo:

  1. State that the reader’s current view of the world is false.
    Supporting point
  2. Establish how so many people being wrong about this hurts our world.
    Supporting point
  3. Establish what’s required to get everyone to change their view.
    Supporting point
  4. Predict how the world would be different once the transition is complete.
    Resulting point
  5. Explore the exciting byproducts of the world being different.
    Resulting point

More objective outlines+

Articulate something everyone’s thinking about but no one is saying.

Identify key trends on a topic. Use them to predict the future.

Contribute original insights to a field through research and experimentation.

Distill an overwhelmingly complex topic into something digestible.

Share a clever solution to a tough problem.

Tell a suspenseful and emotional story that imparts a lesson.

3. Fill the outline

Under each talking point in an outline, I start by writing partially-formed thoughts.

It’s more efficient to speedrun through a bad first draft and improve it later than to try starting from completion.

It’s normal if few ideas come to mind immediately. You’ll discover that the majority of your ideas arrive while writing—not before. You write in order to think.

Later, you'll discover the rest of your ideas by resting and reflecting on what you’ve written. The act of writing compels your brain to draw connections between ideas.

It can’t help itself.

In general, you'll find ideas bubbling up from these places:

A reminder that the last page of this guide has a downloadable cheatsheet that handily recaps everything you're about to learn.

People think you need to be inspired to write. No, you write in order to get inspired.
—Paul Jarvis

Filtering your ideas

As you're writing, how do you know which thoughts are most valuable? What separates good ideas from bad ones?

My approach is to focus on ideas that are interesting or surprising. These are the ingredients of novelty. Novelty is what keeps readers reading. They tend to be:

Interesting ideas

To uncover interesting ideas, continuously make your next point whatever interests you most. Skip everything that bores you.

When something bores you, it probably bores your readers too. And if something entertains you, it probably entertains them too. You're a proxy for your die-hard readers.

That’s the irony of self-indulgent writing: writing for yourself is the quickest path to writing something others love.

The mistake writers make is believing expertise is required to write compelling nonfiction. Nope, it's the rabid desire to indulge your curiosity.

I just write what I want. I write what amuses me. It’s totally for myself. I never in my wildest dreams expected this popularity.
—J.K. Rowling

Surprising ideas

In addition to interesting talking points, you're also looking for surprising ideas.

Surprise is anything that contradicts what readers know or expect you to say. It makes them think, “Wow. That’s unexpected.”

You generate surprising talking points using essayist Paul Graham’s method: First, learn the basic knowledge of a topic. Then, if you can find new information that surprises your knowledgeable self, it’ll surprise laypeople too. You can also play detective: when you know enough about a topic to know what's not known about it, you can selectively resolve those gaps and share the discoveries.

Again, you are your audience's proxy. There's no need to guess what will surprise them. Hunt for something that surprises you, and others will be along for the ride.

When you get stuck

When ideas stop flowing, ask yourself:

  1. How can I make this point more convincing?
  2. What are the interesting implications of what I just said?

Repeatedly ask these two questions and keep moving in whichever direction interests you most.

Your outline should be specific enough to provide structure, but loose enough to not confine expansive thinking. Whenever you feel a tug pulling you away from your outline, indulge that curiosity. Pursue that adventure.

You can prune the bad stuff later.

Refer to my blog post on how to generate good ideas: Creativity Faucet.
I hated English in high school. But if they called it Thinking, then I wouldn't be as terrible of a writer as I am today.
—Quoc-Anh Vu

4. Conclusions

I'm not convinced conclusions are necessary. But I like placing them after my resulting points to prompt readers into action. Here's how.

First, share a poignant takeaway

Identify your article’s significance by re-reading it and asking, “What was this really about? What was I trying to say?”

Distill the answer into a single, punchy sentence. Make readers think, “Ahh, yes, that's why this article was profound.”

Next, provide next steps

Now that your wisdom has resonated with readers, ask yourself, What about the world can my readers better appreciate now that they've read my article?

Share where they can go next to continue the journey they started here.

For a writing guide such as this, I might conclude by sharing bloggers whose work I enjoy. Then I might urge you to reverse engineer their articles and study what makes them great. That's how you continue your learning.

5. Rewrite

Your first draft is a sacred place for generating ideas.

Because it's while writing that you discover your best insights.

You write in order to think.

When you've squeezed every last drop from your brain, it's time to rewrite those ideas into something wonderful.

Onward.

Summary

Here is our writing process:

  1. Choose an objective for your post.
  2. Identify the talking points needed to accomplish your objective.
  3. Write a messy braindump for each point. Lean into your curiosity.

While writing, keep these points in mind:

  1. Don’t feel constrained by your outline. Expect to discover most of your ideas throughout the writing process.
  2. Trust that what interests you is what interests your readers. If not, target an audience more like yourself.

Here's how those steps fit into our overall writing process:

  1. Choose a topic
  2. Write your intro, and use it to brainstorm talking points
  3. Get feedback on your intro
  4. Create an outline using your objective
  5. Explore talking points within your outline
  6. Rewrite for clarity, succinctness, and intrigue ← The next page covers this
  7. Cycle between rewriting, resting, and receiving feedback
  8. Copy edit for grammar, word choice, and style

Next page

Page III — Rewriting your first draft

Turning a braindump into gold.

Next page →